Sunday, July 24, 2011

The different journeys we all take as educators

The New York Times this morning has an article about a new teacher training graduate program in New York City that was founded by three separate charter management organizations. The program prides itself on utilizing little to no reading or theorizing but instead an intense focus on practical classroom teaching strategies that raise student achievement. The founder is quoted as saying "if you think tests are evil... this is not the program for you." The program bases a lot of its pedagogy on the book, Teach like a Champion, whole class type teaching strategies.

When I was a beginning teacher in Baltimore in the early nineties, I struggled. My school noticed that pretty quickly and attached a master teacher to me for about three weeks. She modeled for me, co-taught with me, and finally just observed me teach. The strategies (a lot of positive reinforcement type stuff) she taught me brought order to my classroom and enabled me to start teaching the students. I used these strategies through my second year of teaching as well and got even better at them.

During my third, fourth, and fifth year of teaching though, I really started questioning myself:
  • Do I need to reward students with points for almost everything they do?
  • Shouldn't students have more choice in their daily life?
  • Shouldn't I be developing more of a supportive community of learners?
So, without much or any support, I struggled to implement some of these strategies and realized that kids I taught did not need points for everything they did and when they chose their own reading material they were infinitely more motivated to read. I would love to say that I became a master teacher but I did not, I struggled up until the last day of my teaching career. But I new there was something different that I could be doing in education and in my classroom.

The journey of an educator is hopefully more than just learning new strategies over the course of thirty years. The journey hopefully leads us to some semblance of what is real learning, what is truth, and what really prepared students for the real world out there.

This past year, I have stumbled upon two educators who have had some similar journeys. Marc Waxman, a former TFA teacher and KIPP teacher, is now heading up charter schools in Denver that utilize Responsive Classroom and a more constructivist teaching style. Eric Juli, a central office administrator in Massachusetts is taking on a new job of running a small, innovative high school in Cleveland. Both of their journey's appear to have taken place because of a great amount of reflection and thought. One aspect of Marc's journey that is interesting is that he started to question his teaching as he started to have his own children.

My own journey as I enter my 11th year of being an elementary school principal has me working with a staff that is embracing the core principles of Responsive Classroom and Expeditionary Learning. I have learned more about myself, about learning, about children, and about people the past three years of implementing these principles than I have during any other aspect of my career.

So, in thinking back about the new teacher training program in New York, I probably could have used some of those strategies to survive and in some regards thrive as a new teacher years ago. Some of the new teachers I have worked with over the years could have used some of those strategies as well. I don't disdain them at all. But I also realize that there is a richness of thought and reflection when you try to go past test scores and develop a true learning community that I hope, hope, hope that those teachers in the program get at some point in their career but worry in the current reform climate, they never will.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

If your school teaches to the test, it’s not the test’s fault. It’s the leaders of your school.

So David Brooks wrote a column in the NY Times the other day about the school reform debates. This is not my attempt to add to the debate. I don't have the time to add to the fray. He ended his column though with a rather enticing line though: "If your school teaches to the test, it's not the test's fault. It's the leaders of your school."

The line invoked in me the most irritating response, I both agreed wholeheartedly to it and wholeheartedly was aggravated by it in the same moment.

I am a principal of an elementary school in a high pressure, high stakes environment. 70% of our students qualify for free/reduced lunch. We are the most ethnically/racially diverse school in our school division and in the entire region. If you just look at AYP during my tenure at the school, the results are mixed. One year, we did not make it, one year we did, one year we just barely missed it, the the jury is still out on this past year. We are in our second year of formal school improvement with the state. We are a public school choice school and have mandated outside tutoring as part of the NCLB law. I attend monthly meetings with the state department of ed and turn in data reports to them on a regular basis. Everything in this world tells me as a leader to lead a school that teaches to the test. Every meeting, every statement, every webinar, every powerpoint. The words teach to the test are never used, but it is always implied.

The past two years, however, we have embarked on a different journey. Along with a focus on data and results, we have implemented different strategies through our intensive work with Responsive Classroom and Expeditionary Learning:
  • Intensive community building through classroom and school-wide morning meetings
  • Student led parent conferences for every single student, Prek-5
  • Learning expeditions (you can see them here) at every single grade level
  • Instructional rounds for all teachers (learn about them here)
  • Extensive use of formative assessment strategies
Now, I know many good educators would look at that list and say or think that those strategies would increase student achievement for everyone. I agree. But, the prevailing wisdom in the world in which I partially inhabit (the high stakes world) does not push or even nudge school leaders in that direction. We do the right thing at Greer because we have a culture of professionals who value the strategies above. The does not mean we never doubt ourselves, or worry we are doing the right thing. But we have held the course. We also have a superintendent (@pammoran) and a school board who support our work as well.

Our school is going in the right direction with both our school culture and yes, student achievement, slowly but surely. The school has a vastly more positive and learner supported feel than it did four years ago. But David Brooks, and most other policy wonks, would look at our data and label us as failing. We are not failing, and I would argue we are improving in a more authentic way than most other schools.

What David Brooks fails to realize is that for a school leader to swim up the fast flowing stream of "not teaching to the test", it takes an incredible amount of support, collective courage, and belief in children to accomplish doing things the right way. Most people in education right now, because they are in schools that don't face these issues or they simply refuse to face the issues themselves, don't really have an idea of how tough it is.

David Brooks certainly does not. He is pretty darn clueless.